Expansive Game Design
If you talk to most independent game developers and ask then what their primary difficulties are, most will say experience, funding, and motivation. We all dream big, even if the projects we desire to see brought to life seem so far away from reality for those reasons. This article won’t tell you how to make money, but it will show you a trick that I have learnt over the years as to gaining experience and fueling motivation on your games through feedback and progress.
What is Expansive Game Design? EGD is about the process from a game’s released Alpha state to full release. Many platforms allow you to release an ‘unfinished game’- Itch.io and Steam’s Early Access being the most used. EGD is about how to release a complete game that grows off its own back.
Steam Early Access is currently in a crisis where user faith is at an all-time low. Games released under the system are often struggling to get players, and particularly to retain them, getting negative reviews that stick forever and will never be updated. EGD is about getting through publicly released alpha and beta stages while keeping player interest.
I have created video games for over two years now. I have hired composers, artists, animators… for games that have been very strict in their progress towards an end goal. I have experienced releasing a game in a bad state to early access, and used Steam’s EA system purely as a means for finding and fixing bugs, a mistake I see a lot of developers make. I learnt from those mistakes over time and came up with a new method of game development that I will continue to use for future projects, that has proven far more enjoyable and impactful.
How to use EGD
When I released my latest video game, Spiritlands, onto Steam Early Access, I know the game was at a stage where it was completely playable in its own right. It was a game that was fun to play for people who enjoyed the genre of strategy survival city building, and I was looking for open feedback on its mechanics, and to create a community where ideas are shared and acted upon openly.
For the last few months updates have come in all sizes, every 1 or 2 weeks depending on their size. The importance is always to let those who have invested in your product know your short and medium term plans- the things you know you will be adding, but not reaching too far into the future that those plans might change or can even be added to.
Inform your players, treat them like investors
The people who buy your game while it is still in development invest in both the game and yourself. It becomes your duty to inform them about all the changes you plan to make. Set up spaces for players to communicate – you will find some go neglected for the most part, but savour all feedback, and show you are open to it. Forums, Reddit, social media pages… all show an open invite to players that says – ‘You can trust me to make this game into something you will treasure owning.’ Remember that so many players are being blasted by stories of bad indie developers and seeing games that are abandoned in development. Show off your passion for the game by opening the flood gates for commentary – it can also encourage discussions away from reviews that will likely later provide an unfair evaluation of your game.
When you release an update, be sure to announce it however you can, including the plans for the next one so your players know what to look forward to. It should go without saying- but aim to reply to every attempt to contact you with feedback, ensure they know you value their feedback and will bare it in mind during the game’s progression.
Updates should bounce from each other, avoid rigid planning
The best tool in my arsenal of planning software is Evernote. Anything you can use that allows you to make a to-do list is perfect for Expansive Game Development. Section your pages of notes into upcoming updates, then in each update include a sub-section of what you need to add, what you need to change, and what needs patching. Prioritise – often you will push some things from one update to the next for time/practicality.
It is fine to complete what you predict will be your path to your finished game, but be prepared to be incredibly flexible – your open communication with your players should lead to a lot of feedback. You should also post around what you plan on working on for an overall plan – that way players can chime in early regarding their feelings and ideas surrounding your plans. Don’t be afraid of change.
Keep ideas and inspiration flowing throughout, and preserve a fresh brain
EGD is a long process, it is designed for games that can grow from a core, where content
can be added and sometimes edited freely. If you don’t have the passion or the inspiration, particularly when community feedback might be scarce, you could find yourself down on motivation. So what games are like yours? Working on Spiritlands has had me playing Sim City, Civilisation, Banished, even Minecraft, in search of inspiration. The game I am developing is something I enjoy, so gathering inspiration is very enjoyable too! Compare those games to yours- what is yours missing that would fit well into an upcoming update, how would it fit into your game, what makes it a success?
In summary Expansive Game Developer encourages yourself as a developer to build up an existing game to give it more content, and to perfect what is there already- every update is another layer of perfection towards a slightly changing end goal, while providing trust with your players and a positive place for growing a community – I could not recommend this method more.
Spiritlands is currently in the middle of this process, transforming from a simple game about creating resource production from a village to a city, searching ruins and attacking enemy camps, to also being about building and managing endless settlements with requirements to keep your people happy, and working with AI colonies, forming friendships and enemies and using vast and varied research to dictate the kind of priorities you have as a leader- conquering, discovering, or wealth!
You can get the game HERE. Best of luck with your projects, and I hope this article has provoked thought for yourself about a different approach to game development that you might not have heard of!